We live in a world that is fast eroding in ethics, where mainstays of deontology or rule-based ethics have been shattered in to pieces (except for the mightiest of them all – ‘though shall not kill’). It is a good thing though that sin is devalued (with the exception of murder) because we live in a world where corruption, theft, adultery and lies are accepted as human imperfections that make us human. We live no longer for benevolence just malevolence and that is a subject worth a few honest words.
Ethics is molded by the human experience and shaped by the cultural and religious landscape. In Christianity, there are the ten commandments, a redundant set of rules supposedly given to Moses by God, which gives us humans a yardstick to measure are virtues. Deontology is a dodo that doesn’t have wings, too heavy to move according to the times and dying a natural decline to an oblivion. Yet in that same set of redundant rules, there is a beautiful strain of ethical conduct that can never be erased from a virtuous agent, because sometimes in rules there is sacred beauty that can only be observed by the keenest observer.
Let me give you a taste of the commandment ‘Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness’, which emphasizes that lying, gossip, vilification and slander are all sins unworthy of the human conscience. The human conscience is the compass of an individual that gives us the orientation to find our bearings, to give us how far we are from the true north, to grope with our conscience and find our way to the arms of virtue. Yet we live in a world, polluted of lies, some brazen, some camouflaged in pretense, some conveniently omitted, some with overtones and undertones, some careless and absent of proof, and some with a dose of exaggeration just to further one’s causes in work and play. In contemporary ethics, does any of the above fit in to the behavior of a virtuous character? No, a lie is a lie in deontology yet in these times of consequentalism, lies are the cornerstones of human conduct, where they have leapfrogged in to convention and act as an essential flourishing skill. People lie verbally, in the resumes, on first dates, in the expression of affections, in the furnishing of acceptance and significantly to be the better man in myth than in fact.
In bioethics too, there is a notion of truth in the relationship between the clinician and the patient or trial subject. It is important that the information exchange that forms the basis of the relationship between each other is founded on truths and not myths. For example, if an individual is already taking one kind of medication, he/she should tell so to the clinical associate who interviews him/her for a clinical trial, otherwise drug-saturation can have disastrous outcomes to the clinical trial as well as the health of the subject in hand.
The cornerstone of bioethics can be traced back to Tuskegee, Alabama, where a rogue study was performed between 1932-1972 on the progression of syphilis among African American farmers. The study was deemed a blatant episode of maleficent ethics which led to enforcement of three of the four founding principles of bioethics. Lies once again was the basis of this experiment where there was no informed consent and the participants were oblivious to the actualities and were not treated with suitable treatments in an era of post-penicillin discovery. The embedded message is, sometimes there needs to be a blatant tragedy for something good to happen.
History, whether in life or science, has been polluted by the effluents of lies. It was the manager of the Brookyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey that said that luck is a residue of design. Analogously, misfortune is the residue of lies. We live in a world where mud-slinging is an art form and slander its magnum opus. Yet in spite of the horrendous nature of ethics in this world, we are showing a blind eye, conveniently abandoning the truth, and gazing at a counterfeit reproduction of ‘the last supper’ and admiring the genius of a replica. In truth, lies outnumber truths, in this world of falsifications and fabrications. Even politicians and religious leaders too cannot hold an ethical image and are polluted by the imperfections of far-fetched rhetoric aimed at cutting down ‘the tall poppy’, just to ensure their lies perpetuate. Yet just like David and Goliath, one truth is more powerful than the might of a million lies. At the end, the truth has only one color – white, and a lie has many shades of grey.
Science can do with a dose of ethics in the contemporary. With privacy-invading and mind-reading technologies polluting the cathedral of the human experience, it is time that a spade is called a spade. This is not evolution; this is the devolution of the times. When ethics are eroded, that is when the sanctum of the conscience is eroded of her beauty.
I will not be a Roman when I’m in Rome. I would rather be a pilgrim of the truth. Life is about quality of the human experience and not about the fable of a lie. There is an audacity to the truth, and there will always be an audacity to the human dream that wants to see ethics flourish in life and science.